In August 1996, Bruce McLaughlin and his wife, Robyn, separated after he was charged with assault for twisting her arm during a heated argument in their Leesburg, Virginia home. Though the assault charge was dismissed, the couple began divorce proceedings and a battle ensued over custody of their two sons and twin daughters.
In May 1998, McLaughlin, a 44-year-old contracts attorney, confessed to a brief extra-marital affair early in their marriage in an attempt to reconcile. Five days later, on May 21, 1998, Robyn reported to state child welfare officials that the boys, ages 10 and 12, and the 7-year-old girls all had told her that McLaughlin had sexually molested them when they visited him during the separation.
Police and investigators from the state Department of Social Services Child Protective Services division interviewed the children a few days later. During the interview, at least one of the children used notes prepared with the help of McLaughlin’s wife.
Shortly after, McLaughlin was charged with 23 counts of child molestation. Meanwhile, the state Department of Social Services continued its investigation and in November 1998, the agency concluded that the allegations by the twin girls were not true. But the agency made a disposition of “Founded – Sexual Abuse” for the boys’ allegations.
McLaughlin went on trial in Loudoun County Circuit Court and three of the children—the two boys and one of the girls—testified by closed-circuit television and said they had been sexually abused. A physician testified that he had examined the children and had found physical evidence of abuse, including anal scarring.
A physician testifying for the defense said that the anal scarring on the boys was due to a congenital condition and was not evidence of molestation.
In November 1998, after the judge dismissed nine of the 23 counts, the jury convicted McLaughlin on eight counts of sexual abuse and acquitted him on the remaining six counts. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
In February 2000, McLaughlin was charged with escape when he ran from the courtroom during a hearing on an alleged assault against him by another inmate. He pled guilty to the escape charge and was sentenced to two and a half years to be served consecutively to his 13-year sentence.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin’s wife took the children and moved to her native New Zealand in violation of court orders to remain in the United States. In May 2000, McLaughlin was charged with various crimes related to hiring a prison inmate, who was about to be released, to travel to New Zealand and bring the boys back to America. Investigators first learned of the alleged plot when they discovered a copy of a “contract” detailing the plan in a routine search of McLaughlin’s cell.
Immediately after the inmate was released in April 2000, he was arrested while carrying documents prepared by McLaughlin outlining how he was to obtain passports for the boys, and an audio message to deliver to the boys begging them to come back and exonerate him. McLaughlin and the inmate were indicted in May 2000, but the prosecution soon dropped those charges saying that they did not want to put the boys through another trial.
In November 2000, the state Department of Social Services, prompted by an appeal filed by McLaughlin, revisited their investigation of the allegations and determined that McLaughlin’s wife, Robyn, appeared to have fabricated the abuse allegations. “(T)he interviews with the children are flawed,” the agency said. “They are laced with leading questions…There are many indications that, in fact, nothing is really remembered…In summary, there is much evidence that allegations were repeatedly suggested…by their mother, herself a child sexual abuse victim…and that, ultimately they cannot be relied upon to support the disposition.”
By then, McLaughlin had hired a new lawyer, Alexander Levay, who did what McLaughlin’s first trial attorney had not done—he compared the transcripts of interviews with the children with recordings of those interviews. He discovered that in some places the transcript said the children had said “yes” when asked if they were molested, but the tapes showed the children had not answered at all. Levay filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking a new trial.
In December 2001, a judge granted the petition, ruling that McLaughlin’s first trial attorney had provided constitutionally inadequate legal assistance by failing to compare the transcript with the tapes and by failing to make use of the hand-written notes that the children relied on, and that state officials believed were prepared by their mother.
In December 2002, McLaughlin went on trial a second time. As part of the defense, Levay called an expert witness who testified about the susceptibility of young children when subjected to leading questions by interviewers. On December 12, 2002, the jury acquitted McLaughlin.
In 2003, McLaughlin was the subject of an ABC television program on the use of the penile plethysmograph, a device that measures the response to child pornography by measuring the change in circumference of a man’s penis when exposed to images of child pornography. McLaughlin exhibited no such arousal.
After he was acquitted, McLaughlin sued his trial attorneys for malpractice. He agreed to accept $50,000 from one of the trial lawyers to settle the case, but because of a legal mistake, the other lawyer was released from liability. So McLaughlin filed another malpractice lawsuit, this one against the attorney who represented McLaughlin in the malpractice lawsuit against his trial attorneys. In October 2013, after hearing evidence in the second malpractice lawsuit, a jury awarded McLaughlin $5.75 million in damages. In February 2015, the Virginia Supreme Court vacated the verdict and ordered a new trial because of erroneous rulings by the trial court judge.
– Maurice Possley